As Washington’s Legislature begins a new session Monday, the omicron variant of Covid-19 continues its rampage through the state, scuttling lawmakers’ plans to conduct more of their business in person.
Even so, the 60-day session is likely to be jam-packed. Democratic governor Jay Inslee has proposed new measures aimed at combating climate change. Top legislators want to revisit some of the police accountability bills they passed last year.
And, while a recent Crosscut/Elway Poll shows voters are concerned about the economy, the state’s tax collections are booming, leaving lots of money for state lawmakers to work with as they build upon the $59 billion budget they approved last spring.
Covid-19 relief measures will be a major topic as the legislature looks to distribute more than $1 billion in unspent federal aid.
Here’s a look at some of the top issues legislators are expected to discuss this session, which is scheduled to adjourn in March.
How to spend a lot of money
Since lawmakers last convened, the state’s projected tax collections have spiked considerably, increasing by nearly $8 billion through 2025. That’s in addition to the federal dollars lawmakers need to allocate.
Much more money will be in play in 2022 than is typical of even-year legislative sessions, which is when lawmakers generally make smaller adjustments to the two-year budget they approved the year before.
Inslee, for his part, is proposing to spend $626 million this year on efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as well as $800 million to help combat homelessness.
Legislators have their own ideas. Last week, House minority leader J.T. Wilcox (R-Yelm) said he would like to spend the state’s financial windfall on transportation infrastructure, as well as reducing taxes.
House speaker Laurie Jinkins (D-Tacoma) said she is interested in further expanding the Working Families Tax Exemption, a program slated to provide sales-tax rebates for low-income families starting in 2023.
And Senate majority leader Andy Billig (D-Spokane) said he wants to invest the money in affordable housing, child care, mental health services and education.
“I think that’s what you’re going to see throughout this session, is that we try to invest in a continued robust recovery – but making sure it works for everyone,” Billig said.
What to do with long-term care
A new program to help aging Washingtonians pay for nursing care was supposed to get underway this year.
But after more than 450,000 workers submitted paperwork to opt out of the payroll tax that bankrolls the program, legislators and the governor committed to delaying it so they can work out some kinks.
Jinkins, the House speaker, said she thinks two bills designed to improve the long-term care program will pass early in the session. The two measures would extend some of the program’s benefits to near-retirees, while allowing others – such as active-duty military members and people who work in Washington, but live in Oregon – to opt out.
After lawmakers vote to delay the program for 18 months, they plan to study other potential changes, such as making it possible for people who pay into the program to transport its benefits out of state after they retire, Jinkins said.
Republicans would rather scrap the program altogether and start something new.
“Why don’t we get rid of it and replace it with something that is a partnership with private sector representatives,” Wilcox said last week, “... something that actually works.”
Democrats’ main bills seeking to amend the long-term care program are House Bill 1733 and House Bill 1732.
Law enforcement agencies across the state have publicly objected to some of the police accountability laws legislators approved last year. They say two of the measures in particular – one establishing new limits on police uses of force, and another limiting police tactics such as vehicle pursuits – make it difficult for police to do their jobs.
Jinkins said she’s committed to passing new bills to address some of law enforcement’s key concerns. In particular, Democrats want to clarify that police can still use force to transport people to treatment when those people are suffering a mental health crisis (House Bill 1735) and that police can still use certain less-than-lethal weapons (House Bill 1719).
Another proposal, House Bill 1726, would clarify that officers can use force to detain people suspected of violent crimes.
Jinkins said some action was needed last year to increase police accountability after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, as well as local incidents, such as the killing of Manuel Ellis by police in Tacoma.
This year, she said, the legislature’s goal will be to find “an appropriate balance.”
“I’m very happy to have seen data come out this year that says we are at a five-year low for fatal police encounters,” Jinkins said last week. “So I think that we moved in the right direction on these issues.”
Republicans have a different opinion. Senate minority leader Braun (R-Centralia) is sponsoring a measure, Senate Bill 5675, that seeks to repeal the state’s new use-of-force law outright.
“I think we need to have all options on the table,” Braun said Friday.
Inslee has proposed several measures aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions. One of the biggest would require new construction to become more energy efficient, while also requiring new buildings to be wired for solar panels by 2034.
Inslee also wants older buildings to reduce their energy use. Right now, the state’s clean building standards apply only to commercial buildings over 50,000 square feet. But Inslee’s new proposal would apply those energy efficiency standards to all buildings over 20,000 square feet, including residential properties, such as apartment complexes.
“We need to decrease our use of fossil fuels in our buildings – it is clear,” Inslee said at a press conference last month.
Yet some lawmakers worry Inslee’s plan would have the side effect of making housing less affordable.
“I think the first step that we have to take is pause these building code changes,” said Wilcox, the House Republican leader. “Those add an immense amount to the cost of housing.”
House Bill 1770 and Senate Bill 5669 are Inslee’s building-related proposals.
Single-family zoning changes
Another of Inslee’s ideas aims to increase housing density. He is proposing legislation that would allow duplexes on all residential lots in cities with a population of 10,000 or more. The measure, filed as House Bill 1782 in the House and Senate Bill 5670 in the Senate, would also allow duplexes, triplexes and quads on all lots within a half mile of major transit stops in larger cities (those with more than 20,000 people).
Inslee said the measure is needed to address a shortage of housing units throughout the state, which contributes to high housing costs. Local zoning regulations exacerbate the housing shortage by limiting the kind of “middle housing” – such as townhomes and duplexes – that can be built in certain neighborhoods, he said.
In a Crosscut/Elway Poll released this month, 55 percent of Washington voters said they didn’t approve of getting rid of single-family zoning in medium to large-sized cities, as Inslee’s plan proposes.
But Inslee said he thinks people in Washington do support building more housing when the idea is framed as a way to help solve homelessness and sky-high housing costs.
“I do believe people want us to address this issue,” Inslee said last week. “And what I have learned is that you can’t solve homelessness if you don’t build more housing, it’s physically impossible. We need more roofs. And to get more roofs, we need to remove some of these governmental restrictions.”
Wilcox, the House Republican leader, said he thinks those decisions should be left to cities.
Making it illegal
to lie about elections
Inslee made a few headlines last week by announcing that he wants to make it a criminal offense for politicians to lie about election fraud.
“It should not be legal in the state of Washington for elected officials or candidates for office to willfully lie about these election results,” Inslee said Thursday.
Inslee was speaking on the one-year anniversary of January 6, 2021, when rioters overtook the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.
Inslee said he will support legislation to make lying about election results with no basis a gross misdemeanor. The governor’s office said some lawmakers are drafting such a proposal.
Criminalizing lying hasn’t always worked in the past. In 2007, the Washington state Supreme Court struck down a law that made it illegal for political candidates to knowingly publish ads that contained false information about their opponents. The court said the law violated candidates’ First Amendment rights to free speech.
Inslee said he had “given a lot of thought to this” and thinks his idea will pass the legal test.
“I believe it will be constitutional, because we understand that this speech is the type of speech that can promote violence,” Inslee said last week, referring to the U.S. Capitol riot. “And the courts have held that speech that promotes violence is something that can be regulated to protect a civil society.”
Jinkins, the House speaker, wrote in a text message that the constitutionality of Inslee’s proposal “depends on how it’s drafted.” As of late last week, Jinkins said she had yet to see a draft of the bill.
The state’s bipartisan Redistricting Commission has been a source of recurring drama the past two months. The four voting commissioners – who were charged with the once-per-decade task of redrawing the state’s political maps – eventually agreed on new lines for the state’s congressional and legislative districts. But they did so after meeting for hours in private and voting on a last-second deal that wasn’t written down or shared with the public. The commission didn’t release finished maps until a day after its November 15 deadline.
Two lawsuits now allege the commissioners violated the Open Public Meetings Act and that their work should be thrown out.
But some lawmakers aren’t waiting on the courts to act. State senator Jamie Pedersen (D-Seattle) has filed legislation that would require the commission to make its final map proposals public at least three days before the final deadline. Pedersen’s bill, Senate Bill 5560, would also require completed maps – not just unwritten agreements – to be approved by the November 15 deadline.
Billig, the Senate majority leader, previously said he would support this kind of transparency measure.
Visit crosscut.com/donate to support nonprofit, freely distributed, local journalism
No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here